There’s a lot of scaremongering surrounding ingredients going on in the beauty world at the moment – think parabens coming under fire for their potentially nefarious effect on the body, surfactant SLS purportedly having links with cancer, and talc being accused of having links with lung cancer when inhaled. And with everyone from healthy eating advocates to oncologists weighing in on the veracity of the many claims that seem to spring up daily, it can be hard to know which products are likely to cause more damage than good.
The latest big question revolves around hormones, namely whether skincare can affect hormones or disrupt the endocrine system and, if so, what should be avoided?
The answer to this one isn’t simple, and even the experts seem to think that the studies that have thus far been conducted are inconclusive. An assessment conducted in 2012 by the United Nations Environment programme and the World Health Organisation found that ‘close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to be capable of interfering with hormone receptors, hormone synthesis, or hormone conversion,’ but that ‘only a small fraction of these chemicals have been investigated in tests capable of identifying overt endocrine effects.’
And, more to the point, even if these chemicals were proven to have an effect on the endocrine system, how often they’re used and the size of molecule make a huge difference; very few products contain any ingredients of a low enough molecular weight to penetrate past the stratum lucidum (just under your outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, and nowhere near the deepest layer of your skin), so in most cases, you don’t need to worry.
What we do know is this: some of your skincare undoubtedly will absorb into your body. Nowhere near as much as some scary articles may lead you to believe, but if you consider that nicotine patches work as effectively as the gum, and that doctors now endorse transdermal applications of vitamins, the logical conclusion is that your skin will absolutely absorb the smaller molecules of products put on it. So, anything you apply all over your skin (like a body moisturiser) is most likely to have an effect, whereas something you apply a small amount of (like eyeshadow) is far less likely to contribute to a potentially negative cumulative effect of endocrine disruptors.
Should you want to avoid all risk, you’ll therefore have to tailor your skincare to cut out certain suspect ingredients in the products you use most often, and most abundantly.
The primary suspects? ‘Parabens, chemical sunscreens, and phthalates,’ according to Margo Marrone, Founder and Chemist at The Organic Pharmacy.
Here’s where you’ll find them, and what you can use instead:
While parabens have been deemed by the European Scientific Committee to not pose a risk in the quantities permitted, if you’re concerned, avoid them. Fortunately, plenty of other preservatives are now on the market, so just look for a ‘paraben-free’ label to weed this one out.
These binding agents make plastic flexible, with the unfortunate property of leeching into whichever product they house – and they’re everywhere. They’re in your shampoo, body wash, household cleaner, and potentially in anything that’s passed through plastic. To reduce your exposure, buy glass or other packaging where possible, and keep products in plastic out the sun and use them within the time specified on the tube.
Hawaii recently made the news for banning chemical sunscreens as both oxybenzone and octinoxate are problematic for coral reefs, but they may have an effect on the endocrine system, too. Studies are currently being conducted on the subject, but if you’re worried, switch to physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to minimise sun damage instead.